7 Tips for Maintaining a Redwood Swing Set

Updated — Originally Published April 19, 2011

It’s 1999. My wife and I just moved into our new home with our 3-year-old daughter and infant son – and we pretty much plan to stay here forever. So naturally, we want to do everything right. And setting the kids up with a killer play area is near the top of the list. We had seen some of the redwood sets that were available – and there was no doubt: they were gorgeous. But they were also really expensive. After much consideration, we ultimately decided to “bite the bullet” and invest in a high-end set that could hopefully be with us for our grandchildren one day in the distant future.

We even had a special name-board made up with the thought that it would always commemorate our first addition to our new home for our kids.

Seemed like a pretty cool “finishing touch” to add…

Redwood Swing Set Nameboard

But can a redwood swing set really last for 30 years?

Flash-forward now to 2013. More than thirteen years have passed, and there’s no question that there’s some significant maintenance required keep these sets looking good and remaining functional. And frankly – some stuff simply has to be replaced as well.

Wooden Swing Set Maintenance Experience & Tips

Tip 1: Cleaning the Swing Set Canopy

Each year, I removed the canopy (the blue/yellow/red tarp) in the spring and brushed it clean in the driveway with a soap and water solution. You have to be very careful not to crease this when removing it, as it can be delicate given the size. It’s cumbersome. For the first few years, this was more of a chore than later – as I initially had the set underneath some trees which eventually had to be cut down. Once the trees were gone, the canopy was spared the pollen and a lot of the staining that seemed to come with being in the cool (moist) shade.

Redwood Swing Set Staining Preparation

Tip 2: Redwood Stain for the Long Haul

The wood needs to be actively protected. For the first few years, I stained every other year – but after 4-5 years, I started doing it every single year. Use a high-end stain, and plan to spend at least 2-3 hours as there are many nooks and crannies to be covered. Be very careful to avoid getting stain onto the plastic and rubberized pieces. And surely remove any canopy that may be part of your set before you start.

I didn’t really intend the following picture to become a commercial for Cabot stain, but this is simply the brand I used last month. Go high-end, and go with whatever brand you trust.

Redwood Swing Set Staining

Tip 3: Cleaning the Swing Chains and Rubberized Steps

This was really an ongoing problem. After the first couple of years, we started to develop black and often sticky build-up on the yellow steps – but much worse were the swing chains the kids had to hold. The swing chains got really sticky. The manufacturer recommended using a product called Magic Eraser which we tried, and it definitely works to some degree. But it was always a matter of increasing effort. Year-after-year, it just seemed to get worse; I couldn’t ever get it back to the “new-looking” condition that I wanted. I don’t know how bad they would look if I hadn’t done this. Major advice: Don’t let this slide!

Black Staining on Ladder

Black Sticky Swings

Tip 4: Dealing with Rotting Wood

The wood will eventually rot, especially where in contact with the ground. One of the legs split completely (perhaps about 7-8 inches from the ground up) in about year nine. To deal with this, I bought a piece of pressure treated hardwood and manufactured a replacement leg myself. I found this was more of a chore than I anticipated when the hardware was stripped as well – so I had to manufacture a new leg and also create custom hardware to affix the leg to the set. In the shot just below, the leg on the right is my custom replacement. I don’t think you can tell by sight, but it feels different to the touch – it’s clearly denser.

A-Frame Redwood Legs - Rotting & Splitting

The second leg in this A-frame portion of the set is starting to rot as well now. Take a close look at the next photo and you can see it.

Redwood Leg Base at Ground Level

I have no intention of creating another custom leg though, as I got a little smarter this time. More to come on that, but first read through the next section because this is equally relevant as well…

Tip 5: Dealing with Insect Damage

Wood will rot, and insects will help it along. With me, it was the carpenter bees. They started showing up regularly in about year seven or so – in the late spring. These bees bore perfect holes deep into your wood (they love dead wood) to lay eggs. Once the eggs hatch they move on, but you now have holes bored into your wood. There are chemicals you can use to keep them away – but these aren’t really good for children, so I never wanted to go this route. One exterminator told me I could shoot something as harmless as hairspray into the holes and it would kill the bees. It didn’t. I tried plugging up the holes as the bees were making them – filled them and stained over them, but they just persevered.

Carpenter Bee Damage in Redwood Support

For whatever reason, the bees consistently went after the deck area. The shot above is a major load-bearing support under the deck. Not only does this slowly destroy the structural integrity of the set, but your kids aren’t going to play with it with bees flying all around. I’ve recently heard that sealing the wood with an oil-based stain will actually deter the bees from coming each year. I’ll give that a try moving forward, but it does nothing for the holes that are already bored several inches into the wood today.

Once the holes are made, the wood has been compromised forever.

Tip 6: Using your Wood Play Set Warranty

Here’s where I got a little smarter. Many of these redwood swing sets come with a 15-year warranty; some come with a lifetime warranty. Given my set was so old – this didn’t immediately cross my mind. The details of each contract will vary, of course, but I found that the wood pieces could qualify for replacement if I provided proof (photos) of insect or rot damage. I’ve been working with the manufacturer of my set for the past couple of weeks to move this forward, and I’m quite happy to say that a number of replacement wood parts are now being manufactured and shipped to me. They’ve been wonderful. Some of those parts include the ladder pieces with the black-stained steps – those will all be brand new again soon. I have to pay for the shipping expenses, but that seems fair. You’ll most likely need to be the original swing set owner to do this, and you’ll surely need your receipt – even if (like me) it was from eleven years prior.

Tip 7: Buying Swing Set Replacement Parts

If your goal is to have the set for the very long-term, then warranty-aside, you’re going to need to buy some replacement parts. The canopy started to tear on me after about 9 years. I held it together until spring of 2011 (year 11) when I ordered a new one that had to be custom manufactured. It served me well, and installing the new canopy was really quite easy. Less than an hour of effort.

Installing a New Redwood Swing Set Tarp

Damaged Redwood Swing Set Tarp Board

In addition, I recently decided to go for new swings too. The swings (unlike the wood pieces) come with a 1-year warranty, and that’s ancient history for me. These will once-again look brand new – because they *will* be brand new. Sticky and black-stained rubberized chains (and the non-rubberized now-rusted portions) will soon be perfect again.

And then, maybe I’ll be good for another thirteen years? Time will tell…

Redwood Swing Set - 11 Years Old

Does anyone have any further wisdom or experiences to add?

Has anyone had a wooden swing set (redwood, cedar or otherwise) set like this for more than 13 years??

Part 2: For the full “Renovation” effort – Check out Rehabbing a Redwood Swing Set.

Need Professional Help from a Local Contractor?

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Comments

  1. I’ve had my Rainbow set for 10 years now, and I’m always fighting the rot problem. I’m currently using an epoxy based wood filler to fix things up as best I can. Paying for shipping/install to get the warrantied pieces is a last resort, as I don’t want to dump more money into this, and the kids interest has waned (ages 10-13). My recommendations to owners: 1) Don’t stain with a clearcoat like Rainbow did, use a solid body stain that will last much longer and seal cracks. The sunny side took such a beating and cracks developed. 2) Get the whole thing up off the ground. When I spied some rot years ago (as the weight of the unit pushed it into the ground), I jacked it up and put concrete blocks under the legs. I still have issues because water runs down around the edges and was bleeding into the wood. But, you can at least get to the wood to stain it or repair it. Personally I think the wood touching the ground needs to be rethought; maybe vinyl coated tips.

  2. Hi, I noticed you stained the bolts also? Is that ok do? thanks

  3. Great article! Thank you! I just acquired a Rainbow set in a home purchase. It appears in pretty good shape, but I do need to re-stain as it’s starting to look a little worn. Do you recommend power washing and staining anew, or just brushing on 1-2 coats of new stain? Also, when you’re staining annually, do you do anything to prepare the wood prior to staining?

    • Hi Jarad – Congratulations with your new home! With my set, I’ve never power washed or prepared for the staining in any fashion, mainly because I’ve always kept the set clean from the start. Unless there’s a significant reason to power wash (some type of significant staining or grime), I’d just hit it with a coat or two of wood stain and see how it holds up. I suspect that will very likely be just fine. Good luck!!
      Mark recently posted..Preparing to Install Hardwood Flooring

  4. Jeff Fitzsimmons says:

    Hi! Very helpful post. I’m in the process of refinishing our playset for the first time and there is some great info here.

    Something I want to share is an experiment that I did with the yellow rubberized areas and the ugly mildew that loves to hang out there. I was really determined to get rid of this stuff so I tried multiple cleaning agents (soapy water, simple green, citrus-based stuff, 409, etc) and they made zero progress. I rented a pressure washer for the rest of the playset and tried it on these areas too. Nothing! One day when I was trying some oxygen based cleaner (I used 6 scoops of OxiClean in 1 gal of warm water) on my brick patio, I decided to give it a shot on the playset mildew too. I scrubbed it on with an old kitchen dish brush, let it sit a minute and rinsed it off. MAGIC. The mildew was completely gone!

  5. hi!
    I am in the process of “sprucing” up my cedar swing set. We have only had it for a year now but the wooden roof needs to be painted and i would like to stain and treat the rest of the set. Do you recommend using a Colored stain and water sealer (to match) or since it is not really faded, can i use a regular water sealer (clear) like Thompsons and stain using color in later years?
    Thanks, Emily

    • Interesting question, Emily – Since the roof needs to be painted, I’d start right there…

      Is there any way for you to contact the manufacturer and find out what specific stain/sealer they used so you can match the roof perfectly?? (I did something like this with my set’s manufacturer in Year 1 as well.) If you can get, from them, exactly what they used – I suspect treating the rest of the set with the same would likely work out very nicely. And… thereafter, you can assess clear seal coats on top too. But I’d start with what’s already been used as your baseline.
      Mark recently posted..Installing a Bathroom Ventilation Fan

  6. How many gallons of stain do you typical use to re-stain this size Rainbow System (which I’m guessing is a Castle Climber or Monster)?

  7. Great article and thanks for the questions and comments. All very helpful. Two questions for me:
    1. We are replacing the ropes for the jacob’s ladder and rope swing and are struggling to untie the knots and measure the ropes. Anyone have dimensions for the 3 pieces of rope for the ladder and for the rope swing?
    2. Anyone used a plastic spray product to renew the yellow parts? Scrubbing is not doing the trick. Thoughts on this?
    http://www.usplastic.com/catalog/item.aspx?itemid=39161&catid=699&clickid=searchresults

    • Hi Jana –

      Some thoughts starting with your second question first…

      + Check out this link right here. I never heard of the product you mentioned above, but I just found the same item on Amazon – and it has some pretty decent reviews. (The reviews are one the reasons I love to use Amazon; scroll down on the page from link I just provided to see even more buyer feedback on different product colors.) If anyone tries this (or has already used it) – posting your personal experiences would be very helpful.

      + As for the rope lengths, I suspect it may vary on the ladder and rope swing per set design. But if it were me, I’d take rough measurements of what you have now – then buy clearly-longer lengths and trim once you complete the restoration. Or – contact the manufacturer for the precise measurements for your set; you may need to provide photos, though.

      Good luck!!
      Mark recently posted..Installing a Bathroom Ventilation Fan

  8. My swing set has started looking worn out. Can you please suggest what should I apply on it and the number of coats that are to be applied? Thanks, Mark for providing the great tips.

    • Hi Brandon – And thanks for your comment. See just below for my response to Laura – which is similar in part. The only thing I would add is that if you already have a coat of stain on your set, one more coat should be fine. If you’re staining from bare wood – then I’d start with a good cleaning (per below) and hit it with 2 coats. I use a solid redwood-color decking stain on my set.
      Mark recently posted..Dining Room Design Accents: Wallpaper within Shadow Boxes

  9. We are buying an 11 year old rainbow that has never been stained. I like the color of the wood without the stain. Do I need to stain it? I was told when the wood is that old you don’t need to stain if because the stain will not stay on the old wood and that it won’t protect it because the wood is do old. Is this true or should I stain it? If I do need to stain it can I use chest since I like the gray wood color and will I need to do that every year?

    • Hi Laura – If you like the way the set looks now, I’d personally leave it the way it is. You can surely stain it to be the natural aged color you see now, but to do so would require you prepare the wood for staining – which would mean cleaning/blasting the old wood surface with a power washer (at a minimum) for stain preparation. Then, you’d need to get a solid color stain – so that it was essentially opaque. And thereafter, you’d have to stain again every 1-2 years to keep the finish looking uniform. What I’ve found is that the damage due to bees, insects and rot (at the ground surfaces and other prolonged wet areas) to be far more concerning than natural weathering of the wood surface. I like my set to maintain the redwood color, and thus I stain to maintain every year.

      What you might find moving forward, though, is that if you need to replace a piece of damaged wood (as you can see I did in my “Tip 4″ above), you could be forced down the staining route so that all the wood pieces match. In fact, if you haven’t yet broken the set down to transport to your house – it’s possible you’ll find such damage. Definitely review my redwood swing set rehab article here for further insights on what you could find when you break the set down.

      But the bottom line, for the present, as I see it – this set is for your family to enjoy. If you like the way it looks unstained, then enjoy it as it is!

      Mark recently posted..Green Pest Control: Tips for Protecting your Home and Garden this Summer

  10. mcpartland44 says:

    We bought a 6 year old Rainbow set on Craigslist too. Can’t wait to try the Magic Eraser on the black film covering the swings.

    On the topic of Carpenter bees getting into older Rainbow Sets…
    WD-40 Kills wood boring bees, spray it into the holes in the swingset. Then fill the holes with wood filler BUT NOT WHILE THE BEE IS IN THERE. The female lays eggs in the holes and they will bore their way out. You can also stuff steal wool in the holes and then patch with wood filler to prevent further boring.

  11. Hello,
    I just bought a 1997 Rainbow swing set for $100 in May 2012!!! Clearly these swing sets LAST! There is rot at the ends of the beams, but other than the completely disintegrated bottom horizontal bases for the main clubhouse the set is pretty good. Clearly I have no warranty withstanding as it is so old and I am not the original owner. That said, I do not believe this set has ever been stained. There is plenty of bee holes and carpentry work and no evidence of stain or paint. I am going to buy stain today… stain suggestions welcome!

  12. Mark,

    Last week I primed and painted the yellow step bars with Rust Oleum Yellow paint. Will take a picture of it tomorrow. They turned out pretty good. I used about 4 coats of yellow after the primer dried.

    I also spray painted the silver chain and the yellow plastic chain, that looks pretty good now. (It would have cost me $28/chain to replace X6 for the 3 swings = a little steep. I used a little darker stain, and it turned out pretty good. 6 hours of work total.

    We had a little lichen appear on the south facing top part which I had to sand and wire brush off, looks good now.

    And we had the carpenter bees. The web said to put bee poison in their holes at night, that will kill them when they come out the next day. Then I filled in the hole with a long screw and then brown filler putty. Just used an oil based stain again which should keep them away, they don’t like the stain. Brown paint will also prevent them from chewing through it.

    Best,

    Kevin

  13. We just purchased an 8 yr old rainbow playset in WNY. We have powerwashed, contacted Rainbow for a price on some replacement parts, and will be staining with an oil based redwood stain with a brush this week – it really cleaned up well and most of the damage was the ropes and wood the sat on the ground. Hopefully the oil based staining will keep wood bees away (we didn’t see any bee damage – but I see 1 flying around at our place already!) We were told goo-gone works wonders once a year on the black stuff on the yellow metal & chains. We were told to rag stain the playset each spring after it’s been powerwasher and dried. Any tips for us would be great! Any tips for where to place it in the yard? The slide comes off the end of the Supersized Rainbow Castle Set.

    Mark – how is your set holding up?

    • Hi Amis – Sounds like you’re well on your way! Once you stain your set, I bet it’s going to look stunning. But let me address your three questions:

      1) Regarding frequency of redwood staining, I do it once a year as well – in the early spring. So, we’re quite together there.

      2) As for placement in the yard – I initially had my set under trees, one of which I cut down and another that was recently “removed” by a hurricane. What I’ve noticed is that my set seems to stay somewhat cleaner now that it’s in more sun and dries more quickly. So, if you could, I’d suggest finding a spot that’s mainly sunny – near some trees, but perhaps not directly underneath.

      3) How is my set holding up? Well – it’s now 13 years old [two years older than when I first wrote this article], and it was stained 5 days ago. A brand new photo from this past weekend is below. I’m quite happy with it, and I’m still planning to have it for 30 years!!

      Redwood Swing Set 2013
      Mark recently posted..Hardwood Floor Installation and Trim Work

      • Hi Mark,

        You mentioned you like to use cabot stain. What color did you use in the picture above?

        Thanks!

        George

        • It’s “1880 Redwood” Solid Color Decking Stain. About a month ago, though, I found out that this may be something you have to have custom-mixed now. So, if you get to the paint store, you might hear them tell you this. Also – up at the top of the article, there’s actually a picture of the can I used that you might want to glance at too. Enjoy!
          Mark recently posted..Hardwood Floor Installation and Trim Work

      • Mark,

        Can you please tell me the brand and color stain you used?

      • Kristen says:

        We are looking for something to outline our play set in to keep the mulch inside. My husband doesn’t want railroad ties. Very curious as to what you have here….it looks really good! Thanks!

        • Hi Kristen – I built the frame you see from pressure treated 6″ x 6″ sections. In fact, what you see above are 12 such sections, each of which are 8 feet in length. I started out with the railroad tie mindset, but it was just wasn’t for me either. This is nice and neat. It definitely costs more, but as you can see – 13 years later, they’ve held up great. I stain them every year, as I do the swing set. A different color, though… ;-) Thanks for your comment!
          Mark recently posted..Dining Room Design Accents: Wallpaper within Shadow Boxes

  14. Oakcreek says:

    I recently got a swing set in the backyard. Someone suggested that I should put concrete slabs under the wooden legs to prevent rotting. Is it a good idea? Is there any other way to prevent wood from rotting?

    • Interesting question… Let me start with a couple of preliminary comments: 1) the wood will, of course, rot over time – it’s a matter of making it last as LONG as possible, essentially. That being said… 2) I don’t think putting the set on top of concrete slabs is necessarily best since it could cause the set to rock or vibrate (when the set is being heavily used), and the slabs may eventually move as well. Plus, the bottom of the wood will still be wet when rains.

      So now I’ll tell you what I’ve been meaning to do for 2 years now: seal the bottom of the new wood with a marine epoxy resin of some kind. I really have to give this a try this year myself!
      Mark recently posted..Hardwood Floor Installation and Trim Work

  15. Hi Sandra – We were told to use Magic Eraser at least twice by our manufacturer. It worked pretty well at first – but with each passing year, it got a little harder to clean. You *really* have to stay on top of it, but I’m frankly not sure it will work forever.

  16. Sandra K says:

    Mark,

    What cleaner did the manufacturer suggest you use for the yellow rails and swings?? I can’t find suggestions online ANYWHERE?!?
    Thanks!

  17. Hello Mr. Russo,
    I enjoyed reading your post. I research before buying looking for customer reviews not for future maintenance issues. This is very informative. My husband just finished assembling the set – Do you recommend staining the wood now or waiting until next year?

    • Hi Mari –

      First off, *please* feel free to call me Mark! :-) With my set and even my wooden deck from some years ago, I stain right off. It’s a bit of a pain to do, quite frankly, but I try to seal the wood as soon as I can. Hope you guys all enjoy your set!

  18. Hi Phil – The epoxy suggestion sounds absolutely excellent for preventative maintenance. I now plan to lift the wood areas touching the mulch, let them dry out a bit (in the spring), and then apply a couple of coats of clear marine epoxy. We’ll see how it goes. Great idea. Thank you!!

  19. Hey Mark,
    Thanks for the very complete and thoughtful write-up. There are only two things I really regret not doing in my life, and one of them is not building or buying a play set for my girls when they were little. (The other is not continuing dating Maureen Sullivan in high school – she wound up being a model). So just doing it, no matter which bullet you need to bite, sounds like great advice to me. For the pre-drilled (bee-drilled?) holes, in another life with my old (c. 1790) house, I remember an epoxy-type product especially developed for filling in rotted wood on sashes and the like. I don’t remember how structural the repair could measure up to, but it might even be a treatment, or a preventative, for the leg problem discussed. IAE, happy maintaining and please keep up informed. One could do worse than being a swinger of, well, swings. (Apologies to Robert Frost).

  20. Hi Elle – I’m really glad you asked this question because this could be dangerous! These canopies are expensive, and having purchased a brand new one earlier this year (while having the old one in hand, unlike your case) – I found the measurements didn’t match the manufacturer’s specifications due to weathering. In order to ensure you get the right one, I would strongly suggest contacting the manufacturer and sending them photos of your set. If you know the year it was originally purchased, that would very likely help as well. They seem to make a lot of different sets which further vary per year, and I’m not at all sure the canopy sizes can be trusted to stay the same. If you get someone’s input and it’s wrong – you could end up making a costly mistake that it’s best you avoid from the get-go. Also, aside from the “snaps” you see me installing in the photos above, there’s no additional connection to the top of the set. It just “drapes” over – installation is really pretty easy as long as you drill pilot holes first.

  21. I just bought this same set used a few weeks ago. The person who sold it to me no longer had any canopy on it at all, but I would like to put one on. The swingset is identical to yours, plus an addition of a small second level with a turbo slide.

    Anyway, can you tell me the dimensions of the canopy this swingset needs? I am not sure how to measure it. Also, another picture of installation (mainly how it is attached at the top) would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks!

  22. Stephen Osborn says:

    We bought a used set off craigslist at about 1/3 the cost of an identical new set. I’d say it was 3-5 years old. In our part of the world sun damage had taken its toll on the appearance of the finish, as well as, a slight degree of warping is visible on the deck planks. I’ve sanded and stained all the parts so everything looks nice. I also had to spend $30 to place the two pieces of wood that came in contact with the ground. I am grappling with replacing some of the hardware with bolts rather than the screws currently used. I’m also thinking of reinforcing the deck with more wood underneath that joins the planks together. When I went to take the set apart a number of the screws had either separated or broke off the small piece of wood underneath that joined the planks together to make the deck. I just wish I could be more confident that these are worthwhile ideas.

  23. I can completely relate to what you’re saying, Starmirror. We researched our set for hours upon hours as well. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision – but what I can recommend is the following: contact your dealer and get a written copy of the warranty in-hand for the new set you’re considering. Review the precise terms. The wood simply *will* rot after numerous years, and it will be subjected to insect damage as well. It’s just nature. If you really want to keep your set for 10-15+ years, the warranty might enable that – especially if it’s from a reputable company. I can also tell you that my company honored the warranty without any issue at all – and I received about “half the swing set” (brand new) via a delivery last week. I had to pay the shipping, but that’s all. I was pretty impressed. Will post new additional pictures once I have it all assembled. Your decision is definitely a personal one to make, but having a hard copy of that document in-hand might really help to clarify!

  24. starmirror says:

    Hi! I stumbled on this by chance after spending hours and hours for the last month researching Rainbow playsets. I am so stuck as I first bought a used one which I then cancelled as I saw how bad the runner beam was rotted. Then I gave in and put down a deposit for a new one and then yesterday bought another used one as it was so cheap! It’s 10 years old but in good shape but there is slight wood rot at the legs. Now I don’t know what to do – Should I go for it or just buy a new one and make use of the warranty? I want to keep it for 10-15 years too!

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